It’s been a while since Utah State was even close to this position.
The last time the Aggies made the NCAA tournament was in 2011, when they were led by senior Tai Wesley’s 14.8 points and eight rebounds per game. USU went 30-3, breezing through both the WAC regular season and tournament en route to a slightly disrespectful 12-seed in the big dance. That year’s bracket matrix predicted Utah State as an eighth seed, and the drop to a 12th seed was the farthest drop from projection of any team in the field that year. The Aggies would lose to Kansas State in the first round, 73-68. USU hasn’t so much as sniffed the NCAA tournament in the seven seasons since.
This season, however, the Aggies again find themselves swirling amid the rumors of bracketology. At 23-6, USU has already accomplished exponentially more than even the most optimistic fans dared to dream back in October, winning more games in head coach Craig Smith’s first season than in any other first season for a coach in Utah State history. Projected before the season to finish ninth in the Mountain West preseason poll, the Aggies are two games clear of Fresno State and San Diego State for second place in the conference standings. USU has already guaranteed its highest-ever finish the MW, and with a first-round bye in the conference tournament already secured, are set up well to not only tie last year’s run to the semifinals, but perhaps surpass it.
But as both players and coaches have reiterated time and again this season, the goal has not been to win “X” amount of games. The goal is to win the MW championship and reach the NCAA tournament, and both goals are in play on Saturday night when Utah State faces Nevada within the confines of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Not only can the Aggies hold a realistic shot of earning at least a share of the MW regular season title with a victory, but a marquee win versus a team of Nevada’s caliber could be just enough to push the Aggies into the NCAA tournament’s field of 68 teams, regardless of the outcome of the MW tournament in two weeks. To better understand what’s at stake on Saturday, let’s parse those two goals and address each shortly.
First, USU’s chances of a MW title are fairly easy to discern after Saturday’s game. With a win, USU would need only to beat Colorado State on the road to earn at least a share of the regular season title. With (a lot of) luck, the Aggies could win the title outright were Nevada to trip in one of their final two games at Air Force or at home versus SDSU. A victory for Utah State on Saturday would also clinch the second seed in the MW tournament, meaning USU would avoid the Wolf Pack all the way through until the championship round.
Exponentially more tumultuous, however, is how Saturday’s match-up affects USU’s positioning for the NCAA tournament. While winning the MW tournament would automatically qualify the Aggies, USU’s tournament hopes will likely be at the mercy of the NCAA selection committee. Currently, projections are favorable to Utah State. A plethora of teams surrounding USU on the “tournament bubble” have faltered in recent weeks, elevating the Aggies onto the cusp of a tournament berth. Of the 122 bracket projections monitored by the season’s Bracket Project, the Aggies are projected into the tournament by 82 of them, with an average seeding of 11.60. Those projections that predict USU to make the tournament include CBS’ Jerry Palm, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Beller, and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. However, Utah State is frequently listed as one of the last at-large teams included in the tournament field.
That existence among the “Last Four In,” as it’s frequently referred to as, is a perilous one for the Aggies, making Saturday’s contest one of the most important in recent Utah State basketball history. The NCAA judges a team’s resume for the tournament by splitting games into four quadrants using the NET rankings. A Quadrant 1 victory is of more value to the selection committee than a Quadrant 2 victory, and so on. Likewise, a Quadrant 1 loss hurts a team less than a Quadrant 2 victory. This season, the Aggies are 1-2 in Q1 games, beating St. Mary’s on a neutral floor while losing at Nevada and at Houston. Utah State is also 2-3 in Q2 games, 7-1 in Q3 games, and 12-0 in Q4 games. The numbers coincide with the national consensus of the Aggies: they’ve handled their business against inferior opponents, but have struggled to grab a marquee victory versus an elite opponent.
At home versus Nevada represents USU’s final shot to silence such critiques, as the Wolf Pack currently sit at 19th in the NET rankings and would qualify as a Q1 victory (a theoretical MW championship game versus Nevada could also qualify), and the final chance in the regular season to boost the Aggie’s resume and likelihood of an at-large berth in the tournament. To do so, Utah State will have to flip the script from their 72-47 loss at Nevada back on January 2nd. In that game, the Aggies shot a season-low 26.2 percent from the field and were held to their second-lowest assist total of the season while Nevada’s Jordan Caroline and Cody Martin wreaked havoc on USU’s defense, combining for 29 points, 19 rebounds, and 13 assists. Since that night, Utah State has gone 13-2, defeating every other team in the conference at least once. But to continue the upwards trajectory of this season, USU needs to complete the set with a victory over the Wolf Pack on Saturday night.
A possible MW title and a bid to the NCAA tournament, it’s all at stake on Saturday. It’s been a while since the Spectrum’s seen that.